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Civil Engineering Overview 

Michael W. Tantala

Princeton University
Princeton, NJ

B.S. Civil Engineering, University of Pennsylvania
"I am currently studying full-time as a Student at Princeton and working part-time as an Intern at Tantala Associates, Philadelphia, PA. The most interesting internship project I worked on was the design of a three-story, heavy timber structure which is a night club in Philadelphia. I was able to work on all aspects of this project from foundations to structures to working with the architects and clients."
"Get active in ASCE. You'll get to meet leaders and have opportunities to develop professional skills. Students should not only master technical abilities, but should also become proficient in speaking and writing. Well-roundedness is an attribute of a good civil engineer."

"The most important thing to me when I pursue a job is will I be happy? And in that word happy there's a lot of things implied. Will I be challenged? Will I be given the opportunity for personal growth and professional growth? Will I be able to work with projects that I'm interested in?"

"My relationship with my mentor is, is very important. Now that I'm looking at graduate schools, one of the first things I'm going to look for is, is there going to be somebody there that I can work closely with? When I first came to Penn and I went through classes like everybody else, but then I started talking with a professor, we had similar interests, and that's really made the difference for me."

Q: When did you decide to study civil engineering?
I decided to study civil engineering at a very young age, I guess, about ten. My father has been in the business and I always had an interest in structures and something technical as opposed to more liberal. And actually a funny story, my dad would always go out on jobs. And one time he took, took me. He said he was going to take me out on a job. And he took me out for about three hours to this arcade and let me play all the games I wanted to play and everything like that. And every time after he would tell me we're going out to the job and it was like Pavlov's dog, I would always go out with him to these jobs thinking I'd go to the arcade but it was really a job. So I guess a little bit of that is still in me and I always think about that.

Q: How do you think of Civil Engineering work?
As fun. I think about work and working with different kind of projects, be it research, academic or out in the industry, I always think of it as fun, interesting and challenging. Challenging.

Q: And why did you decide to go Penn?
I chose Penn because it is in the area. I wanted to stay in the area. My father and my brother each graduated from Penn in civil engineering. I liked their program, I think they have an interesting program that combines civil engineering -- the degree is called civil engineering systems here at Penn and it seeks to include not only the technical aspects of engineering but also the professional aspects. When you do an engineering job today, you don't just design the bridge, you have to determine why you are designing the bridge, where the bridge is going. There is a lot of political, social and economic factors involved with any kind of project you do today. And we can see that more as globalization takes part.

Q: How would you describe your course load?
Course load? It's a fair amount of work. Like I said, I enjoy a challenge and I get a fair amount of the technical but Penn also has a liberal education so I have the opportunity to take business courses, law courses and that is all going to be a part of what I see myself going into. It is a lot of late hours working in engineering but it is also a lot of fun. I like the people I get to work with and it's interesting.

Q: What year are you?
I'm a junior at Penn. Just finished classes and I'll be starting my senior year in September.

Q: So what is your specialty? Or do you have a specialty within that program?
My focus within civil engineering is structural engineering. Materials, structures. I also am interested in geotechnical engineering, foundations, soils, how structures and foundations interact, things like that.

Q: Do you have a coop program here?
We don't have a coop program like they do at Drexel but we definitely have the opportunity during summers to pursue a job at a local firm. Or what I've done, I've done research every summer that I've been here. I have a mentor within the engineering program and we work on a series of projects. We have a couple of projects lately for the summer that are with the government or the National Science Foundation.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with your mentor. Is that important to you?
That is very important. My relationship with my mentor is, is very important. Now that I'm looking at graduate schools, one of the first things I'm going to look for is, is there going to be somebody there that I can work closely with? When I first came to Penn, I went through classes like everybody else, but then I started talking with a professor, we had similar interests, and that's really made the difference for me. And that's one of the things that I think has made me successful in what I do. Because I can always work on projects with him. I have somebody to talk, be it technical, professional or personal, any kind of issues that I have. And I always have a place to go to sit in his office and chat or go out to lunch with, things like that. So it's really made a lot of opportunities and it's almost like a father figure, a second father figure for me.

Q: How did you create that relationship?
Actually, it was through ASCE. My freshman year I had written for the Shimizu essay contest and I won. And during an ASCE meeting, a Penn ASCE meeting, they announced it and he heard about it. And he called me into his office to talk to me, congratulate me, and asked me if I wanted to work on research with him that summer, which was really a big leap in terms of opportunities because freshmen engineering students at Penn usually don't get asked to do research during the summer. It was sort of like a foot in the door for me. And I've just worked with that every summer. So it was really ASCE that helped me find somebody with really similar interests.

Q: What other engineering activities do you take part in school?
I'm President of the Penn ASCE chapter this year. Aside from that, I am an editor for the engineering magazine at the University of Pennsylvania. I am going to be editor-in-chief next year. And that magazine is the Triangle Magazine and we talk about different technical issues that are not only within the school but also in the surrounding community and even nationally. And not just technical but also professional issues. We have had a lot of interviews with different people who have really been leaders in the engineering community.

Q: Do you think it is going to be useful in terms of job hunting or your career?
Yes. I think if I were looking to hire an employee, I wouldn't only look at their grades, I'd also look at how well rounded they are in terms of were they involved in research and what extracurriculars. And I would primarily look for involvement with ASCE. I think my involvement with the Triangle Magazine has been interesting because it's allowed me to sharpen my writing skills, my communications skills, my speaking skills, and I think that's really important for engineers to have. Funny, I go to a lot of ASCE dinners and functions and I always make it a point to ask the engineers what's the most important course you did take or could have taken? And these are older engineers, they're not fresh out of college. And 99% of the time, it's uncanny, they respond with I took a speech communication course and I can speak at ASCE functions or conventions. And that was the most important course that they always say. Not only speaking but writing. I think that's really important and should be stressed for civil engineering students.

Q: So you're going to go to graduate school?
Yes, I plan definitely to go to graduate school. I have one more year left at Penn and I don't know exactly which graduate school I'm going to go to yet but I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's important. It's important for me to have a Masters but also its important to become a licensed engineer, I think. I'm going to also pursue getting my PE license, Professional Engineering license so I can practice.


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